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Your Guide to the Guide: Part 10 Query Letters

I’ve seen posts on social media recently to do with query letters — i.e. what should be included in a query letter? And how does one go about getting attention from an agent or publisher using such a thing?

As is common in the field of fiction writing, rumours abound as to what one should and shouldn’t do with such things. Writers in particular seem to be good at developing superstitions about the paraphernalia surrounding writing and publishing stories. The truth is, as you might expect, simpler than most people think.

A query letter, like a story itself, is a communication. Communication involves taking an image or an idea or both and moving it (or them) across from an originator to a receiving point. What the communicator wants is for the receiver to completely understand what was being transmitted. Ideally, they want the receiver to contribute in a positive way to a communication. Thus, in the case of a story, the writer wants the reader to receive the story and to add to it his or her imaginative elements, so that the story comes to life in the reader’s mind and has an emotional effect.

With a query letter, you want something of the same kind, you might think: you want to stir the agent or publisher into some kind of action. As most publishers and agents seem to want you submit a cover letter along with your story, then surely it’s important for that letter to have an emotional impact all on its own?

The stark truth is that most publishers will look at your story first and barely glance at your covering letter until after they have the flavour of the fiction.

As with most things like this, the best test case for whether or not this is true is yourself. When you go shopping to buy a new laptop or some other item, you walk into the store and the first thing you want to do is test the item, play with it a little, explore it to see if you like it. Then, if you do, you pay closer attention to the technical details and price and so forth.

Agents and publishers are human beings. They have time pressures and tastes and habits, like you and me. If your story arrives on their screen, they will skim over your covering letter and read the first few lines of the story first. Why should they waste their time finding out what you have to say about it until they know if they themselves are interested? After having read a little bit, if they like it, they might read some more. Only when you have sufficiently hooked their interest with the story will they turn to your letter, usually.

Your letter, then, doesn’t have to be an attention-capturing device, designed to hook them in. That’s the job of the blurb. In the letter, you only need the barest of facts.

You don’t need to include a synopsis of your story or anything about it unless the publication specifically has asked for that information. Your background or educational qualifications aren’t important and don’t need to be mentioned. The agent or publisher doesn’t need to be entertained by your letter, or to glimpse that you are really a good-hearted person with a sense of humour, or a hard-working author desperate for a break, or anything else about you except the raw facts of your name, your whereabouts and perhaps a little about your publication history.

Their attention is on your story. That’s where your attention needs to be too, prior to sending it out: how to craft a story that will grip, glue and guide whoever reads it to the point where they want more and more.

But if you need any help putting together a query letter, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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